Comedian Redd Foxx will undoubtedly be best remembered for his role as cantankerous junk dealer Fred G. Sanford on the hit 1970s television series Sanford and Son. His tribulations with TV son Lamont, best friend Grady, and nemesis Aunt Esther—especially when feigning heart attacks with the oft-heard lines “I’m coming Elizabeth. This is the big one”—will live long in the minds of viewers. Ironically, it was during the filming of his latest television series, The Royal Family, that Foxx finally succumbed to “the big one” while friends and cast members looked on helplessly.
Born John Elroy Sanford in St. Louis, Missouri, on December 9, 1922, Foxx was the second son of Fred and Mary Sanford. When Foxx was four years old, his father deserted the family; his mother moved to Chicago to find work, leaving her sons to live with their grandmother. It was around this time that Foxx became interested in show business while listening to radio broadcasts of his favorite comedy programs. He soon left St. Louis to live with his mother in Chicago.
A few years later, at Chicago’s DuSable High School, Foxx’s dream of a show business career began to take shape. After forming a washtub band with two friends, Lamont Ousley, and Steve Trimel, Foxx dropped out of school and in 1939 ran away from home in hopes of striking it big in New York City. Playing on the street corners and subways of Harlem led to the band’s—at that point called the Bon-Bons—big break: second prize on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and a week’s booking in a Newark, New Jersey, nightclub.
The band soon broke up, however. Foxx was then turned down for Army service in World War II. So “Detroit Red,” as Foxx was nicknamed because of his red hair and fair complexion, found himself working in a variety of odd jobs, including a stint as a dishwasher at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem, where he worked with “Chicago Red,” later known as Malcolm X. It was during this time that, according to Douglas C. Lyons of Ebony magazine, “Foxx adopted the stage name Redd Foxx because of his red hair, his foxy style of dress and his admiration for the famed baseball player Jimmy Foxx.” Years later Foxx clarified his reasoning to People: “The extra letter was so people would remember it.”
Born John Elroy Sanford, December 9, 1922, in St. Louis, MO; died of a heart attack, November 11, 1991, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Fred (an electrician) and Mary (a domestic worker and radio preacher; maiden name, Carson) Sanford; married Evelyn Killibrew (divorced, 1951); married Betty Jean Harris, 1955 (divorced, 1974); married Yun Chi Chung (divorced); married Kaho Cho, 1991; children: Debraca (stepdaughter).
Comedian and actor. Began career in various musical groups, including the Bon-Bons, 1939-1941; performed as a comedian in nightclubs and on recordings, 1941-1991; performed with Slappy White, 1947-1951. Television series included Sanford and Son, 1972-1977; The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour, 1977-1978; Sanford, 1980-1981; The Redd Foxx Show, 1986, The Royal Family, 1991. Selected television appearances included The Today Show, 1964, The Tonight Show, Here’s Lucy, The Addams Family, Mr. Ed, all 1965, Green Acres, 1966, The Lucy Show and Grady, 1975, The Captain and Tenille Show, 1976, Diffrent Strokes, 1979, and the television movie Ghost of a Chance, 1987. Film appearances included Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1970, Norman … Is That You?, 1976, and Harlem Nights, 1989.
Awards: Golden Globe Award for best television actor in a Musical or Comedy, 1972; Emmy Award nomination for best actor in a comedy series, 1971, 1972, and 1973.
Baltimore club called Gamby’s was looking for a master of ceremonies. Since employment in New York City was scarce, Foxx headed south. At Gamby’s Foxx began to develop his stand-up comedy routine. Foxx told Lyons, “Baltimore was tough. No use in me lying; that was the toughest [town] on earth to work. I don’t care who you were. If you were bad, and they thought so, you were going to know it.”
After the war, Foxx moved back to New York to play the “chitlin’ circuit” of black nightclubs. In 1947 he teamed up with Slappy White; the two enjoyed moderate success, sometimes earning as much as $450.00 a week. Their partnership ended abruptly, however, when they bombed the Palace on Broadway. In the winter of 1951 blues singer, Dinah Washington invited Foxx to California to join her show. Unfortunately, the new gig lasted only a month. Foxx found California much more segregated than New York and was forced to supplement his show business career with a part-time job as a sign painter. Then, in 1955, while playing at a downtown Los Angeles club called the Brass Rail, he was spotted by Dootsie Williams, owner of Dooto Records. Williams persuaded Foxx to record Laff of the Party, the first of 54 albums that would sell well over 20 million copies.
This first “party album”—spoken comedy with no music—was a big hit in basements and rec rooms across the country, even though it featured four-letter words and “blue” humor forced many conservative outlets to sell it under the counter. “Emerging as the dean of blue comedy in an era before Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy launched their attacks on social taboos on race and sex,” wrote Donald Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television, “Foxx became a master of wicked standup satires on sex and other topics. Even when young, he was often a bit of a dirty old man, using the vulgar and the profane to shatter middle-class pretenses.” In fact, many people credit Foxx with creating the genre of comedy albums.
By the late 1950s, Foxx was considered one of the funniest comedians around, though his appeal was limited to the black community. It wasn’t until 1959 when he played New York’s predominately white Basin Street East—to great applause—that he started to get the recognition he deserved. Within one year he was playing Las Vegas; first at a small club known as the Castaways, and then at the plush Aladdin, where he performed for a year. Then, in 1962, Foxx appeared for the first time as a headliner at the Summit on the famed Sunset Strip in Hollywood.
For the next couple of years, Foxx enjoyed great success playing prestigious clubs on the West Coast. In 1964 television journalist Hugh Downs caught his act at the Sugar Hill club in San Francisco and invited the comedian to make an appearance on the Today Show. “Until then,” Richard Pearson wrote in the Washington Post, “television had been leery of Mr. Foxx. He was thought of as a comic that, though gifted, was limited by his off-color material.” But Foxx’s television appearance proved to be so successful that he was soon called upon to appear on all the popular talk shows of the day, including those hosted by Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Steve Allen, Mike Douglas, and Virginia Graham.
The last half of the 1960s was an exciting and busy time for Redd Foxx. Not only was he offered continual work at various nightclubs around the country, including the renowned Apollo in Harlem, but he was also getting requests to appear in guest spots on some of the most popular television shows of the time, including Here’s Lucy, The Addams Family, Green Acres, Mr. Ed, and The Lucy Show. His popularity was growing so quickly, in fact, that in 1968 Hilton International Hotel offered him a contract for $960,000 for 32 weeks of performances. And just as it looked as though things couldn’t get any better for Foxx, he was offered his first part in a movie. In 1970 he appeared in Cotton Comes to Harlem as Uncle Bud, an elderly junk dealer.
Although his part was a small one, Foxx’s performance was good enough to catch the eye of television producers Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, who were casting a new situation comedy based on a long-running British television show called Steptoe and Son, On January 14, 1972, Sanford and Son, starring Foxx as curmudgeonly Watts junk dealer Fred Sanford, premiered on NBC-TV to rave reviews. The Washington Post’s television writer, Laurence Laurent, called it “a small step in television’s progress in showing members of a racial minority with respect, warmth, and affection.” Audiences seemed to agree with Laurent’s views; for the first four years of its five-year run, Sanford and Son ranked among the top 10 programs on television. The show’s popularity earned Foxx one of the highest salaries paid to a television star at the time—approximately $35,000 an episode. According to Time’s David Gates and William Slate, “Foxx knew how to spread it around: by the end of the show’s second season, he owned five homes, a TV production company, a theatrical-management agency, a Los Angeles nightclub, and a Hollywood beauty shop.”
Foxx had finally made it in “the business,” but he never forgot his roots or the long struggle to get where he was. In fact, he has been credited with giving several comedians their big breaks. According to Raoul Abdul in Famous Black Entertainers of Today, “Flip Wilson’s first exposure to national television audiences came about when Redd Foxx was asked by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show whom he considered the funniest comedian around. Redd replied, ‘Flip Wilson.’” This single remark launched Flip Wilson into the limelight.
Another popular comedian whom Foxx took under his wing was Richard Pryor. “I learned a whole lot working at Redd’s club,” Pryor told Walter Leavy of Ebony. “I got to watch him work every night, and he gave me inspiration and encouragement so I could be more me and do what I like to do in my act.” But Foxx’s generosity did not end there. He often invited old friends to appear on his shows, made frequent appearances at charity events, donated his time to prison shows, and entertained troops in Vietnam with Bob Hope. And, in true Redd Foxx fashion, several of the leading characters on his hit television show—Fred G. Sanford, Lamont, and the Reverend Trimel—were named in honor of his brother, who had died five years before the show premiered, and his first two band partners, respectively.
Foxx was also known for fighting racial prejudice, especially in the entertainment industry. Some black leaders, however, criticized his portrayal of Fred Sanford. Critics complained that Fred Sanford was, Bogle wrote, “part of the 1970s minstrelsy: the standard stereotyped good-for-nothing black roustabout.” The criticisms bothered Foxx. “That’s what hurts me more than anything else,” he told Lyons, “to see Blacks criticize a man who was making a living. Sanford wasn’t in relief. He didn’t ask the government for nothing and he wasn’t begging nobody for nothing.” Nonetheless, though he had won a Golden Globe Award in 1972 and four Emmy nominations for his portrayal of Fred Sanford, Foxx’s enthusiasm for the character, and the show, waned as the series became more popular and its star became a real celebrity. It wasn’t long before contract disputes, fights over creative control, and working conditions forced him to leave the show in 1977.
Foxx was quickly approached by ABC to appear in his own variety show. Unfortunately, The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour lasted only one season. Two years later he was back on NBC trying to recreate the role of Sanford in a revamping of the old show. Once again, however, the series, simply called Sanford, lasted only one season. Foxx remained unfazed by the setbacks; he returned to Las Vegas and his stand-up routine. It was at this time that the many years of lavish living began to take its toll on Foxx. He lost most of his business enterprises, as well as his luxury cars and three of his five homes. In 1983 he filed for bankruptcy protection, citing personal debts and tax problems. The Internal Revenue Service finally seized his possessions in 1989 to help alleviate the $2.5 million he owed in taxes, penalties, and interest.
Still, even when the chips were down, Foxx continued to entertain audiences in Las Vegas. In 1986 he made another attempt at a television series, The Redd Foxx Show, but once again met little success. The following year he filmed his first television movie, Ghost of a Chance, followed by an appearance opposite comedians Pryor and Murphy in the 1989 motion picture Harlem Nights. Though the movie was expected to elevate the careers of its stars, critics largely begged to differ.
Foxx was not discouraged by naysayers, however, and in 1991 he was back on television starring in another television series. “The ratings,” wrote TV Guide’s Michael Leahy, “for the first two episodes of The Royal Family had exceeded expectations.” This was good news for Redd Foxx. “Everybody says we gonna have a hit. I’d like this to be big, so I can end my career on a high note. If it’s my last hurrah, it’s gotta be a good one.”
Sadly, the good times did not last. On October 11, 1991, during a brief rehearsal for the show, Foxx was joking with the cast and crew when he suddenly fell to the floor of the stage. At first, those assembled assumed he was feigning yet another Sanford-style heart attack. But reality sank in a little over three hours later when Foxx died of a heart attack at the Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center. He was 68. In his last extensive interview Foxx told Leahy that, despite his life’s ups and downs, he was a happy man. “I’ve lived pretty high and good, and then it got rough, but in between, always, I been havin’ some bleepin’ laughs.”